Second Opinion: A public health warning about the new anti-binge drinking campaign

Irish culture has not caused binge drinking any more than our eating culture has increased levels of obesity. The food and beverage industry is to blame. Photograph: Thinkstock

Irish culture has not caused binge drinking any more than our eating culture has increased levels of obesity. The food and beverage industry is to blame. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

The 2014 Euro Health Consumer Index shows that Ireland is in 35th place out of 36 countries for binge drinking. Bosnia-Herzegovina is in first place, Italy is sixth, and Scotland 36th. The new Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 will reduce alcohol consumption by introducing minimum unit pricing (MUP), health labelling, regulating the sponsorship of some events – unfortunately not sports – and restricting, to some extent, the advertising and marketing of alcohol products. According to the Bill, “Together with pricing, the control of advertising has been identified as an effective method to reduce harmful use of alcohol.”

Almost all the media coverage of the Bill referred to Ireland’s drinking culture, attitudes to alcohol and drinking patterns, and not the real culprits: alcohol advertising, marketing, sponsorship and the overall regulatory environment.

Irish culture has not caused binge drinking any more than our eating culture has increased levels of obesity. The food and beverage industry, with its relentless pursuit of growth and increased consumption of its products, is to blame for both health problems.

A few days after the Bill’s publication, a new Diageo-funded campaign, Stop Out-of-Control Drinking, was announced. Campaign members are well known and, no doubt, well meaning. The chairman of the board is Fergus Finlay of Barnardos and the other members are a GP, a psychologist, a psychotherapist, an entrepreneur, an actor, a county councillor and representatives from Diageo Ireland, Dublin City University, the National Parents’ Council, Sport for Business, Irish Smart Ageing Exchange, Irish Rugby Union Players Associations, MyMind, St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Solamh, and the Labour Relations Commission.

The campaign is up and running for only a few weeks and has already got it wrong. The focus is on binge or out-of-control drinking, not on overall consumption.

“We intend to lead a campaign that will be based on evidence and strong and effective messages . . . we will challenge motivations and perception of excessive drinking as a cultural norm.”

Campaign members may be well-intentioned but they are also naive. Partnering with Diageo is dangerous. The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against involving the alcohol industry in anything that aims to reduce alcohol consumption. And that includes policy-making, legislation, campaigns, projects and programmes. A 2013 report from Alcohol Focus Scotland, Engaging with the Alcohol Industry: What you Need to Know, warns government and non-governmental organisations against having anything to do with the alcohol industry. “Public interest bodies should be alert to the fact that the industry seeks a role for itself in areas . . . in which it has no expertise.”

The report concludes that actions proposed by the alcohol industry “are rarely evidence-based and unlikely to reduce harmful alcohol use”.

Throughout the world the industry uses tactics designed to misdirect, deceive and obfuscate, in order to avoid an unfavourable regulatory environment. One tactic is to argue that responsible drinking can be learned [education does not work] and an irresponsible minority indulge in harmful bingeing [false]. Another tactic is to promote the responsible use of alcohol as a net benefit to society [false]. Alcohol drinkers are encouraged to count units: a gimmick which does not reduce alcohol consumption any more than counting calories reduces obesity.

The industry promotes the least effective policy interventions and demands self-regulation, warning citizens about the nanny state interfering with their rights. Its default position is to distort and misrepresent evidence about effective interventions.

The latest tactic is pseudo-partnership. Over the past 20 years, the alcohol industry has established Social Aspects Organisations (SAOs) to further its interests in influencing alcohol policies. These operate at global, European and country levels. Drinkaware is one such organisation and the campaign to Stop Out-of-Control Drinking is another. SAOs, disguised as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), are a cynical ploy to further the interests of the alcohol industry. CSR is about the ethics of how businesses make money, not how much they spend on supporting charities and communities.

Does Diageo have any role to play in reducing alcohol consumption? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It can stop all advertising and marketing of its products, and all sponsorship deals. Problem solved. Of course it will not do that. Diageo’s job is to sell as much alcohol as possible but charities and well-meaning people and organisations do not have to help by conferring respectability through partnership.

The Government needs to legislate for a complete ban on alcohol marketing, advertising and sponsorship deals, as it did with tobacco. Smoking rates are now 19.5 per cent, down from 28 per cent in 2003. The reduction is almost entirely attributable to the raft of regulation and enforcement introduced since 2002. That’s a great public health success story.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council. drjackyjones@gmail.com 

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